Evaluating Risk in the War on Terror

It’s been a while (this grad school thing is time consuming,) but I have things to say to the Internet! And as they often do, these things concern the War on Terror.

I’ve written before about the need for a new strategy, or really any actual strategy, in the War on Terror, and my intense hatred in particular for drone strikes and “targeted killings”/assassinations, but I want to dig into that issue a little more today.

There are a lot of moral and legal issues around the drone campaign, but a big one is the identification of targets. To name just a few:

So called “signature strikes” are conducted without actually identifying the people being targeted; instead they are based on what the U.S. considers to be suspicious patterns of behavior.

Generally, any male killed in a drone strike that is “of military age,” which is considered to be about 15, is counted as a militant when the U.S. government counts casualties from drone strikes.

And of course, there is the “collateral damage,” a term of art used to refer to the civilian victims killed in drone strikes. It’s one that I find particularly offensive, because it erases the actual human identities of the people killed by our policy.

Which brings me to the heart of my opposition to the growing U.S. dependence on drone strikes in fighting terrorists, real and imagined.

The appeal of drones is the fact that their use does not (directly) risk any American lives (I say not directly, because drones do stir resentment that can translate into attacks on Americans, something called blowback.) Our soldiers can operate them from bases in the U.S. to kill people in Yemen, or Somalia, or Pakistan. So while our drones may kill civilians abroad, they preserve the safety of U.S. soldiers.

While no one wants U.S. soldiers to die, we have to remember an important fact: they are soldiers. Under international law, we give them permission to break one of the biggest taboos in basically any culture: the right to kill. We do it with the expectation that they will only kill people who are truly dangerous. We do it with the understanding that they kill to protect the innocent. And they become soldiers knowing that they will be exposed to greater degree of risk than other citizens.

Of course we should try to implement policies that lessen that risk for soldiers when possible, but we cannot do so at the expense of increasing risk for any civilians, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, or religion.

If a situation does not threaten U.S. interests enough to expose soldiers to as much risk as we would expose civilians to, then we should consider that it might not be a situation that will benefit from military action at all.


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